What lies beneath

With sheep-farming no longer the mainstay of the national economy, Western Australia’s expanding mineral exports are now underpinning the country’s wealth, writes Chris Pritchard

Ribbons of asphalt snaking into Western Australia’s vast ochre-hued interior, with summer heat shimmering ahead of the car, are indicators of this vast state’s emptiness. Road signs warn that it’s 250km to the next fuel and food stop. 

Of the five federated states and two territories that comprise Australia’s mainland, the biggest by far is Western Australia. Largely arid, this Indian Ocean-facing territory comprises about one-third of Australia’s land area but is home to only 2 million of the nation’s 22.5 million people. Most of its population is concentrated in major urban areas: Perth, the gleaming state capital – where this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held from 28 to 30 October – as well as places such as Kalgoorlie (a gold-mining hub), Broome (a far-northern tourist town), Port Hedland, Karratha and a handful of other regional centres. 

To stroll along St Georges Terrace – compact Perth’s main drag – is to pass many steel-and-glass high-rises, housing the head offices of resources companies. While the state also exports wheat, wool, wine (particularly from the esteemed Margaret River region) and meat (with lamb shipped live to the Middle East), public attention is focused on mining in a state often described as “mineral rich”. 

The prosperous west is frequently regarded as Australia’s most productive state. It’s certainly pivotal to the country’s economy. More than 36 percent of the nation’s exports originate in Western Australia, with much of the focus on iron ore – most of which goes to China. When contrasted with doubts about economic well-being in the rest of Australia, Western Australians could well be living in another country with a different economy.

The mining boom’s frontline is far-northern Karratha in the Pilbara region. Newspapers are fond of calling it Australia’s most expensive town. Houses commonly rent for A$2,000 a week, but are often unavailable.

Young miners reportedly sleep in their cars rather than pay the huge sums demanded for accommodation. Karratha has no dry cleaner or butcher because of the high cost of renting commercial premises. However, it claims Australia’s highest rate of boat ownership per head of population. 

Mines and other resources projects are mushrooming in Western Australia. New operations are starting up all over the state, often on a fly-in-fly-out basis (as in Queensland), which means workers are flown in and out with airlines competing aggressively to land lucrative mine contracts. Among the biggest projects is Gorgon, in which petroleum multinational Chevron has the biggest stake. Its giant liquefied natural gas plant is being built near Karratha. At present, 3,000 employees work 26 days on and nine days off. (They’re flown to and from Perth.) The payroll is set to swell soon to 5,000 workers. Construction is projected to be completed by the end of 2012, with customers in China, Japan, South Korea and India already signed up to buy its output. 

Besides Gorgon, multinational Mega Uranium’s Lake Maitland project is also under construction (with two other uranium mines to follow in the next three years), while expansion at the Boddington gold mine will make it Australia’s biggest when it reaches full production next year. Then there is also a mix of new and expanded iron-ore projects being developed. 

It used to be said that Australia rode “the sheep’s back” to prosperity. No more. Wealth these days has more to do with what’s in the ground rather than what grazes or grows above it. Mining and natural gas seem set to underpin Western Australian – and, hence, the country’s – wealth for some time to come.  


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